Unmatched in its mountain scenery, undeterred by its tumultuous past, the nation of Georgia is now seriously on the up, attracting travelers from both Europe and Asia (continents it straddles neatly on the Caucasus Mountains) and touting everything from the snow-tipped peaks of Svaneti to shimmering beaches on the Black Sea. Here, we take a look at the spots every visitor to Georgia should be sure to have on their bucket list. Enjoy.
1. Tusheti National Park
Cascading down the northern edges of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, right on the cusp of Russia and Chechnya, the Tusheti National Park is the historic home of the eponymous Tush peoples. It’s also breathtaking in the extreme; big on relief and made up largely of soaring peaks and grass-clad hills. There are few roads in sight, and the villages that can be found nestled amidst the misty mountaintops are historic, brick-built affairs like Dartlo, which can be seen protruding almost organically from the Georgian lands, encompassed in rural sheep farms (the region is particularly famous for its wool and cheeses) and swathes of spruce forests to boot.
The great up-and-coming capital of this up-and-coming country, Tbilisi is the nerve centre of Georgia’s drive towards modernity. It’s also a town steeped in history, making it a great place to explore the republic’s fine balance of the old and the new. The city sprawls out along the ridges that bubble about the banks of the Mtkvari River. The district of Old Tbilisi forms its heart; a medley of mysterious Byzantine churches, timber balconies and the occasional piece of striking modern art (check out Sioni Street). Above, draped over the hills, the mighty precipices, cathedral tops and bulwarks of Narikala stand firm, while well-to-do Vake district babbles with public fountains and pretty parks.
While Borjomi may still be best known as the source of its namesake mineral water – a salty, uber-frizzante concoction that was beloved by Georgia’s onetime Soviet masters – the city of today has plenty more to offer than just its sulphuric, volcanic springs. For one, the setting is magnificent, with the town plugged neatly between the ridges of the Borjomi Gorge. Then there’s the elegant faces of Russian imperial architecture, painted in pretty yellows an ochres and abutting neatly up to the fountains and grassy lawns of the city park. What’s more, the mysterious Green Monastery lurks just on the edge of town, encompassed by primeval forests and oozing with dark tales of monkish massacres from the Middle Ages.
Cut and carved meticulously into the sandy rock faces that rise like phalanxes against the meanders of the Mtkvari River in the deep Georgian south, Vardzia remains without question one of the most dramatic sights to behold in the country. It’s estimated that the various tiers of monolith churches, caves and shrines seen here were inhabited from at least the middle of the 12th century, when the dynatstic kings of the Bagrationi are thought to have commissioned the first constructions on the sheer-cut edge of Mount Erusheti. The real must-see, however, remains the glorious Church of the Dormition; a rock-carved shrine which displays an enthralling montage of murals and iconostasis that fuse Oriental, Byzantine and Romanesque styles alike.
Situated just a short ride out of the capital of Tbilisi, UNESCO-attested Mtskheta clutches the low-lying banks of the Aragvi River confluence. Hailed for its countless Christian sites and importance as one of the nerve centres of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the town draws huge crowds throughout the year. They come to see the beautiful rises and magnificent frescoes of the great Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which stands as one of the finest examples of medieval Georgian religious architecture and a revered pilgrimage site for Georgians right across the country, or the Jvari Monastery on the hill, soaring high above Mtskheta – a curious mix of tetraconch architecture, Hellenistic, Byzantine and Georgian styles hidden between its apses.
Shrouded by the snow-mantled peaks of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, deep in the legendary lands of Svaneti, the various hamlets and dabas (small historic towns) of Mestia rarely fail to draw a gasp. They are instantly recognisable thanks to their stone-clad, square-cut Svan towers, which rise majestically from between the groves of chestnut and birch here, oozing with centuries of Georgian history and culture. Today, this ancient cluster of UNESCO-tagged villages is really on the up, with a new airport bringing new guesthouses and more and more people weaving between the striking architectural pieces of Lekhtagi and Lagami (two of the most attractive small centres). Others come to hit the Chalaadi glacier and hike the trails to massive Mountain Ushba in the distance.
Set more than 2,000 meters above the low valleys that carve their way through the heart of the Greater Caucasus range on the edge of northern Georgia, Gudauri has risen and risen in recent years to establish itself as the country’s prime winter sports destination and also a fine alternative to the bustling ski fields of the Alps. Skiers and boarders here enjoy a relatively snow-sure set of pistes that range from 22 kilometers of blue beginner runs to a welcome 10 kilometers of challenging black runs. What’s more, the season runs well into April and new investments mean the lifts are all speedy Doppelmayr ones. The resort is also hailed as one of the world centres for Heliskiing – if that’s your sort of thing!
8. Lake Ritsa
First-time travelers to Georgia could be forgiven for thinking that the shimmering waters of Lake Ritsa, set deep in a valley of the Caucasus Mountains and surrounded by verdant dashes of buxus and Nordman firs, had been plucked straight from the Austrian Alps or the Rockies of British Columbia. But no, this picture-perfect alpine retreat between the mountains of Abkhazia (a separatist section of the country that buts up to the Black Sea in the north-west) really is in Georgia. The lake and the surrounding forests are great for hikers looking to delve into one of the less-trodden natural reaches here, while boating and wild swimming in the icy waters are also favourite pastimes.
The kingpin of the Georgian east makes its home between the sloping foothills of the Tsiv-Gombori. Boasting a history of more than 2,000 years, Telavi was shaped by the Romans, the Kakheti kings, the Georgian monarchs and the Russian tsars alike. That means a unique array of architectural pieces to discover, going from the formidable bulwarks of the Dzveli Galavani, left over from the region’s dynastic rulers in the 9th century, to the Batonis Tsikhe, a testimony to the late medieval period that blossomed here. Other travelers will wonder at the 45-meter high sycamore tree, whose sinewy 900-year-old trunk really is a sight to behold, and the Alaverdi Monastery, sat between the mountains just on the edge of the town.
The icy tendrils and muscular ridges of Mount Kazbek dominate the horizon around breathtaking Stepantsminda; a town at once remote and wild that can be found nestled deep between the Caucasus ridges in Mtskheta-Mtianeti. Along the massifs of Kazbek just above the city, it’s possible to spy out the glistening caps of the Kuru and Shino glaciers, two of the natural wonders that have helped to catapult Stepantsminda to the forefront of Georgia’s ecotourist and adventure travel boom. Expect hiking opportunities aplenty, along with a whole host of other adrenaline-pumping pursuits, from hang-gliding over the tips of the great Holy Trinity Church to rafting and rock climbing.
A fine stepping stone for further explorations in Svaneti, the Samegrelo region, the Georgian Black Sea coast and the autonomous region of Abkhazia, Zugdidi is shrouded by the serrated ridges of the Greater Caucasus just south of where the mountains claim the land. A relatively new town (at least as Georgia’s wealth of ancient and medieval centres goes), this regional capital is home to the elegant facades and enthralling architectural exhibitions of the Dadiani Palace, which rises in beautiful crenulations against the flowing waters of the Chkhoushi River right in the heart of the centre. Others will come to seek a spot of adventure in the Martvili Canyon, or hit the famous hot springs that lurk in the hinterlands close to the city.
A string of five villages deep in the heart of the majestically beautiful Svaneti region, Ushguli bears its UNESCO tag with pride. Set between fields of cattle and crooked farmsteads more than 2,000 meters above sea level, the site encompasses towns like Zhibiani and Chazhashi, which pepper the grass plains below the shimmering ice of the Shkhara glacier like ancient relics strewn haphazardly amidst the Georgian highlands. The spot is also home one fascinating ethnography museum, and is known as the place where Georgia’s national treasures were hidden away during times of national conflict and strife.
Dressed like a Tuscan hilltop town above the verdant reaches of the Alazani valley, Sighnaghi really does live up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful towns in the country. A sea of cascading red-tiled roofs are what mark it out against the Caucasus glaciers on the horizon, while winding streets of cobblestone and painted timber bungalows showcase the traditional 19th-century Georgian style that continues to flourish here. Be sure to tour the bulwarks of the crumbling town wall and its 23 towers, wonder at the stupa-like spire of the St Giorgi church and discover the revered pilgrimage sites of the Bodbe Convent.
Neon lights and bustling seaside promenades, soaring high-rises and the pulse of modernity are what set Batumi of the Black Sea firmly apart from Georgia’s wealth of ancient and medieval towns. But despite its stylish edge, Batumi is actually one of the oldest cities in the country, with roots going back to the age of ancient Greek colonialism. Relics of that long-gone history still do lurk here, at spots like the Gonio-Apsarosi Fortress and between the rooms of the archaeology museum, though only amidst a shiny, steely new dash of condos and industry that’s come with Batumi’s place as the Georgian port city elect. Of course, nightlife is big, coalescing in Georgian wine bars and cafes along the beachside Boulevard.
Remote and lonely on the hills of Shida Kartli, Uplistsikhe is thought to have once been one of the major political and economic centres of the Kingdom of Kartli, which dominated the heartlands of the Caucasus around the year zero. Today, and visitors who come here can discover an almost organic protrusion of the beige-brown hills Uplistsikhe is settled on; a series of monolith cave dwellings and winding staircases hewn deep into the rock. Crowning the site is a somewhat anachronistic cathedral complex, which dates from the 10th century (after the Christianisation of Georgia) and commands sweeping views of the eastern plains.